Why women can't get ahead in law firms


Alecia Simmonds


Photo: Adam Katz Sinding

Many years ago during a brief flirtation with The Dark Side I contemplated a job offer at Allens, one of Australia’s top-tier law firms. A friend who was already working there told me a joke that, in its boundless hilarity, helped make up my mind. It went like this:

Three young women are competing to make partner in a law firm and the cut-off date is approaching. They’re equally talented and ambitious -but there's only room for one new partner. So a senior partner devises a test. One day, while all three are out to lunch, he places an envelope containing $500 on each of their desks. The first woman returns the envelope to him immediately. The second woman invests the money and returns $1,500 to him the next morning. The third woman pockets the cash. So which one gets the promotion to partner?

The one with the biggest breasts!

Needless to say, I took my tits to the academy instead.


I was reminded of this joke when I read recently that although 61.4% of law graduates are women, only 23% make partner in top-tier corporate law firms, 18% in mid-tier and 17% in small firms. The Courts are also rollicking penis pageantries with the Federal Court, for instance, having a mere 16% of women on its bench.

Now women have been graduating from law school at equal numbers to men for over twenty years. This doesn’t look like a problem that will miraculously disappear with time. And given that this bias within the law is likely to lead to discrimination in the application and creation of the law (through Judges or legislators) then we all have a vested interest in legal culture becoming more equal. So why aren’t there more female legal leaders? And what can be done to change it?

One common argument ascribes blame to low levels of women’s self-confidence. As Sharon Cook, a managing partner from Henry Davis York reportedly said in response to the stats: ‘Female lawyers not having the same belief in themselves as their male colleagues can be their biggest barrier’.

I don’t doubt that men feel more entitled to ask for promotions and pay-rises, but I also don’t doubt that men are more inclined to give other men those pay-rises. Why else are male law graduate starting salaries on average $4,300 higher than female law graduates? Law professors concur that it’s not because they’re smarter. Women dominate the awards ceremonies and take a larger share of the high marks. It is, quite simply, a reflection of the fact that legal culture systematically discriminates against women.

From sexist jokes, to pay inequities, corporate law is a boy’s own adventure story where a life of capitalist plunder pays off with a corner office and promotion to partner, just like Daddy! To say that the problem is with women’s self-confidence just blames the victim.

A more compelling analysis is offered in Cook’s discussion of the ‘24/7 work ethic’ or ‘legal culture’. To be fair, some corporate law firms have tried to redress the lack of women leaders. Some firms have targets for women in senior positions and most have adopted flexible work arrangements. But none of this changes the fact that in law your value lies in your ability to be on call and able to deliver services to clients at any moment of the day or night. The good lawyer is someone who works long hours, full time and with no time off for child rearing. And by long hours I mean sometimes 48 hours without sleep and working during your holidays. Some corporate law firms have beds and most have chefs that reward you with dinner for staying past 8.00. One of my friends said that her skin turned grey and sores started to appear after she did 14 hour days on an international commercial transaction for one month straight without any days off.

Weirdly, many young lawyers boast of their exploitation. They speak of working on ‘sexy cases’ which means sacrificing their home life for a midnight tryst with subordinate legislation. I know of a partner at a law firm who attended an 11.00pm meeting fresh from hospital with a drip still in his arm.

If the good lawyer is modelled on a man with a wife at home to raise children and perform domestic labour then women, as Joanne Bagust argues, are relegated to the status of fringe-dwellers in the legal community. Particularly women with children. When mothers return from maternity leave, they often suffer a catastrophic descent down the corporate ladder, being consigned to menial knowledge management tasks.  No matter how many hours they put in, says Bagust, they’re not seen as good workers. Legal culture doesn’t allow for shared love. The firm demands absolute devotion. The result is a classic case of private care-givers being excluded from responsibility and power in the public sphere.

 This kind of discrimination happens in a range of professional settings, where educated cultural elites are worked like 19th Century Yorkshire boilermakers. Journalist Lisa Pryor calls it ‘The Pinstripe Prison’. The problem with law, however, is that lawyers constitute a body of workers who, in their potential capacity as Judges or legislators, can exert extraordinary power over everyday people’s lives. They don’t just inhabit a world of structural inequality they have the potential, in related roles, to inflict these values on all of us. Just look at the proportion of lawyers in Tony Abbott’s new cabinet.

Of course, in an ideal world corporate law firms would not exist and we’d all resolve our disputes through collective consensus decision making, clicking or twinkle fingers. But until that day arrives it’s in everybody’s interests for legal culture to be less Boy’s Own Adventure Story and more Choose Your Own Adventure: flexible and with multiple options including to put the book down for a while.


13 comments so far

  • "But none of this changes the fact that in law your value lies in your ability to be on call and able to deliver services to clients at any moment of the day or night. The good lawyer is someone who works long hours, full time and with no time off for child rearing. And by long hours I mean sometimes 48 hours without sleep and working during your holidays."

    It's great to see that you acknowledge that a large part of the reason why there aren't more women at the top of law firms is the above. I'm sure that there is probably some small element of sexism or boys club culture or whatever other usual reasons are trotted out, but the reality is that in law (as in many other high earning professions and roles) you are expected to work very long hours and you are constantly at the beck and call of the client. Therefore law firms will reward those who are willing to sacrifice time with their children and families, and for the most part those people are males.

    If you're a law firm and you have two people that you have to choose between to work on an important case that is going to require a lot of long hours and one of them is willing and able to do so and the other one has a child to look after and needsto be able to get off work at 5 every day and is far more likely to have emergencies at home, which one are you going to choose?

    Date and time
    September 26, 2013, 9:21AM
    • Yes, I want to make this point as well Alecia.

      You've said that much of the reason women don't make senior level is because to make senior levels, you need to be willing to work ridiculous hours and prioritise work over everything else.
      Ergo; Women don't make senior levels because they are in general not prepared to commit as much to their work as their male counterparts.

      For both biological and social reasons child rearing is often much more of a commitment for women than their male partners. The absentee father is of course much more acceptable socially than the absentee mother. For whatever reason a mother's parenting is considered much more valuable than a man's; hence the overwhelming placement of children in their mother's care in divorce cases.

      Frankly after this many thousand years I don't know if we will ever see the male 'provider' and female 'caregiver' roles change; Ever more than we will ever see male penguins successfully refusing to sit on their partners' eggs.

      Date and time
      September 26, 2013, 7:37PM
  • Great piece Alecia. I think there's another point which is that the major law firms are incredibly profitable with most having more than a 30% profit margin. The truth is that for partners, the model works - so why change it? I've started a new business at www.professionalmums.net where lawyer mums can sign up to be contacted by firms for family-friendly work opportunities. The only thing that will change how large firms operate is economics, so if enough highly talented women leave to join other smaller firms that then start to make inroads on the bigger firms then the model will adapt.

    Kate Mills
    Date and time
    September 26, 2013, 10:46AM
    • "Why else are male law graduate starting salaries on average $4,300 higher than female law graduates?"
      Because male law graduates on average are more likely to sell their souls to corporate law.

      Date and time
      September 26, 2013, 10:53AM
      • Male graduates also aren't entitled to maternity leave, and are presumably far less likely to ask for flexible hours if and when they have children.

        Date and time
        September 26, 2013, 11:10AM
      • Getting paid more in the absence of maternity leave is fair, akin to being paid more at the expense of sick leave entitlements.

        With your next point, did you mean female law graduates were more likely to be on flexible hours from the start, so an average would give an indication of a lower overall pay rate (the reason why median is used more often than mean as a measurement)?
        Or did you mean that they would be paid less on the assumption they would move to flexible hours in the near future?

        The former makes perfect sense, but the latter is not really any different to refusing to hire and train women in the first place on the basis that they'll all just go get preggers anyway. Not a justifiable reason.

        Date and time
        September 26, 2013, 1:00PM
      • I was actually referring to the latter Markus. If there is a reasonable probability that in the future the employee won't be as dedicated to work as they are now(much like maternity leave), then that's something that could be taken into account when deciding what to pay them. It really isn't that different to discounting future cash flows except you're discounting future time spent at the office. If on average women are more likely to be doing less hours in the future then you could discount the amount you are willing to pay on that basis. It isn't fair because you would end up paying less to women who do stay dedicated and more to those who don't, but that's just one of the flaws of using averages. There are a bunch of other caveats to this as well, however broadly speaking it may make sense. Please note I'm not actually advocating doing this, I'm just saying that it may be economically rational to do so.

        Date and time
        September 26, 2013, 1:51PM
      • @Hurrow

        By your logic, we shouldn't even bother educating women. I mean, they're just going to go off and have children anyway right?

        The mere suggestion that it should be assumed all women are going to have children and be less career orientated is complete sexism. You are part of the problem.

        Date and time
        September 26, 2013, 6:05PM
    • Yes, there are discrepancies in the male:female ratio at partner and senior management level, and yes, the profession could do things better...but when starting out, there is no difference in starting salaries. They don't care what sex you are, all graduates and junior solicitors (up till about 4 years post admission) are as inexperienced as each other. The discrepancy really arises around the 5+ years post admission when women take time out of the ladder climb to have children.

      Female lawyer
      Date and time
      September 26, 2013, 12:03PM
      • Hmm,
        I wonder why male law graduates earn more than females?

        Could it be the fact that they're less likely to work in government jobs, more likely to work full time and on average work 2.4 hours per week more than their female counterparts?

        Nah.....something something....discrimination

        Freddie Frog
        Date and time
        September 26, 2013, 1:23PM

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